Here's an ITN news report from the other week. I missed it at the time but it's fairly timeless. It comes across disconcertingly like a Chris Morris parody, but apparently it was actually broadcast.
The story claimed that lampposts in London - and soon in other towns and cities across the landn - were to be fitted with protective padding to prevent people from bumping into them and injuring themselves while sending text messages. A survey, said the report, found that more than one person in ten had sustained such a lamppost-related injury (which was extrapolated to produce a figure of 6.5 such incidents nationwide). It also found that 44% supported the idea of padding lampposts, while 27% favoured the creation of specially marked-out lanes on pavements which mobile users could safely walk down without bumping into lampposts (or, I suppose, other people). Brick Lane was identified as London's most dangerous street when it came to lamppost hazard, hence the filmed "trial".
The media loved this story, which, like many such tales, fed into widespread popular ideas about overzealous and overcautious local authorities. It had a grain of plausibility (I've certainly bumped into a lamppost, and I wasn't even texting at the time). It contained that old journalistic standby, the "scientific" survey. And while the whole thing was being sponsored by the directory enquiries service 118.com, a known pressure group, Living Streets, was also involved. So that the Mail was able to report that,
Brick Lane has been made the country's first “Safe Text” street, with brightly coloured padding, similar to that used on rugby posts, placed on lamp posts to test if it helps protect dozy mobile users.
If the trial is successful, the idea could be rolled out to other London blackspots, including Charing Cross Road, Old Bond Street, Oxford Street and Church Street, Stoke Newington.
The only trouble was, no-one had told Tower Hamlets council, who were not only furious at the use of their lampposts for unauthorised marketing stunt by 118.com, but soon found themeselves at the receiving end of a good deal of derision. Lucy Mangan in the Guardian, for example, wondered what might happen next:
· A sherpa on every corner, to usher the texter safely through the crowded streets.
· Replace cars with tyreless chambers running along fixed rails to enable "drivers" to text more safely.
· A stairlift in every home to negate the possibility of tripping up or downstairs while urgently texting your friend or family member about your plans for 2nite
The council sent a crack team of demolition experts to Brick Lane to remove the padding as soon as they heard the reports. It was too late. The foam had been taken down as soon as the photographers were out of the way. There never was a trial, even an unofficial one. But the story had already been reported as far away as New Zealand.
The whole story reads like a textbook case of what Nick Davies calls "churnalism". Don't bother checking the facts, but re-write the press release slightly so it looks like you've gone out and done some investigation. As the editor of the East London Advertiser Malcolm Starbrook said "In general the media coverage was a suspension of disbelief. They wanted the story to be correct and they never went into it."
Hard-pressed journos like their stories easy and ready-made, and a "survey" sounds impressively impartial and newsworthy, even if it is a transparent puff for whatever company commissioned it. And who actually bothers to peek beneath the user-friendly headline stats to find out what the survey actually asked, who it actually asked, and why. And, of course, the story fits the prevailing meta-narrative of "health and safety gone mad" - stories of councils banning hanging flower baskets or cutting down horse chestnut trees just in case conkers fell on people's heads, or acrobats being told to perform in hard hats. Se non è vero, è molto ben trovato, as the saying goes: it may not be true, but it sounds as though it ought to be.
It'll be April 1st soon. Perhaps the news media could celebrate the date by making sure, for once, that all their stories are actually true.